How Russia's avant-garde reinvented the book

Books are an intimate form of communication; they speak to one person at a time. The nature of the medium allows a narrative to unfold, page by page. In the early 20th century, a circle of Russian artists and intellectuals – the avant-garde – set out to reinvent the book. The success of these innovators still stands today: Such Russian avant-garde artists as El Lissitzky and Alexsandr Rodchenko are credited with influencing contemporary graphic design.

A new exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art (which will soon close for renovations) traces the evolution of the "artist's book" from a one-of-a-kind objet d'art, to editions of several thousand.

A problem common to book exhibits is that one cannot see all the pages of a book on display. Here, curators Deborah Wye and Margit Rowell have provided touch-screen computers and facsimile editions. Visitors can "page" through the books virtually or literally.

Some of the earliest books address World War I with Cubist-inspired forms and traditional Russian folk-tale imagery: Angels hover above airplanes. Patriotism and politics were constants in the work of the avant-garde, expressed through an amalgam of available media: wallpaper cutouts, linoleum cuts, rubber-stamped text, and mimeographed type. Later, they included photomontages as cinema and photography emerged. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, a cultural renewal flourished for a time; bans were lifted on Jewish publishing. Artists reached out to wider audiences. There was a brief international collaboration and exchange of ideas.

The state took an interest in a medium that could reach out to millions. The government became the publisher and began churning out industrial and architectural publications to promote the Soviet state.

Artist-influenced books were now mass-produced. Despite their often-mundane content, these books became a sophisticated form of communication. But in time, the state exerted its influence, declaring some designs too abstract. This led to an abrupt end of this artistically rich period. Josef Stalin suppressed modernism in favor of an idealized Socialist Realism.

• 'The Russian Avant-Garde Book: 1910-1934' is at New York's Museum of Modern Art through May 21. The show can be viewed online

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